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May 2018

Bitcoin

BitcoinTo talk about the cybervirtue of cryptocurrencies, we have to start by thinking about how humans relate to value, and as usual I have a game example that is nicely illustrative.

I remember back in the mid-nineties, when Magic: The Gathering was just gathering steam, that a good friend of mine refused to assess his cards for the game in terms of the market prices for selling them. Another friend and I were deeply into the meta-game of trading up for value, and so always knew what the cash equivalents for the cards were. For him, it was simply inconceivable that he should think of these tiny pieces of cardboard in terms of their resale value and not simply in terms of the enjoyment he could get from them. In some respects, he eventually won me over. It may amuse me that my Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale can now be sold for upwards of $2,000 – but I don’t want to sell it, and I don’t let its exchange value stop me from playing with my old decks once a year when I break them out to play with students.

Of course, it is a short step from disbelieving in the exchange value of Magic cards to disbelieving the exchange value of currency. And the trouble is, value is precisely a quality that is sustained by the imaginative collusion of communities – whether of Magic: The Gathering players, citizens spending national currency, or cryptocurrency miners investing in huge blocks of computers to run calculations that ultimately end up with exchange value. All these examples would be equally insane, except for the fact that they are all equally and trivially normal.

Now we’re in a position to ask whether Bitcoin (or indeed another cryptocurrency) could be cybervirtuous, and perhaps the simplest answer is to observe that money itself has not proved a good encouragement of virtue, and every alternative medium of exchange is essentially just another form of money. That said, it counts against Bitcoin specifically that the energy being expended powering its exchanges is an ever-growing, ever more wasteful human activity – and indeed alternative cryptocurrencies are beginning to sell themselves on their superior environmental implications. If I might be tempted to call Bitcoin cyber-naive, however, I would have to recognise here the all too familiar shallow sightedness we humans have with all our technology networks.

Some advocates for Bitcoin were particularly keen upon it for reasons aligning with Libertarian values, that is, they didn’t like the way their currency was dependent upon a central government and thus loved the apparent freedom that the peer-to-peer ledger systems enabled by blockchain software made possible. Even investors are now won over by cryptocurrency because they are not prone to the fluctuations brought on by credit risk. I have to wonder sometimes whether we might be overestimating the power and control of government, and underestimating the degree to which our money is ‘in charge’…

A Hundred Cyborgs, #10


Best of E3: Shadows

shadows-awakening-bannerAt this year’s E3 in Los Angeles, one of International Hobo’s RPG projects received two Best of E3 nominations, one from RPG Fan and one from WorthPlaying. The game, Shadows: Awakening – the latest instalment in the cult Heretic Kingdoms franchise that began in 2004 – is developed by long-time ihobo client Games Farm. Featuring an original narrative design and script by International Hobo’s founder, Chris Bateman, the game features characters voiced by Tom Baker, Sally Knyvette, Robert Ashby, Joanna Wake, Ramon Tikaram, Marc Silk and many other talented actors and actresses.

Due for release later this year by publisher Kalypso, Shadows: Awakening is an action RPG set in a dark sword and sorcery world. The player controls a Devourer, a kind of demon that can swallow the souls of the dead and manifest them as puppets. But who is really pulling the strings? Find out later this year!

Cross-posted from ihobo.com.


Firearms

FirearmsThe rhetoric on either side of the gun debate in the United States is astonishingly weak. On the one hand, those in support of firearm ownership like to say “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, unwittingly drawing against two centuries of moral philosophy that divide mind from matter, and morality from ‘inanimate objects’. Even if we to try to assign all the blame in a single shooting incident to humans, we couldn’t plausibly place all culpability in the hands of the shooter: there is also the distributed responsibility of those who made and sold the gun and bullets, the organisations who campaigned to ensure easy-access to such weaponry, and many other humans involved in the culture of firearms – including but not restricted to those who make films and videogames that valorise guns and pay license fees to their manufacturers. We might justifiably challenge: why do you want to be one of those people who helps people kill people?

Yet the opposing rhetoric is equally misguided. I frequently challenge those who are vehemently against firearms to explain why we should be focussing our attention on guns and not cars, which kill more people. The near unanimous reply is that “the sole purpose of guns is to kill people”, and this is then used to make a moral argument for why that technology is not permissible. In other words, opponents to firearms allege that guns are cyber-murderous: that this very technology creates the conditions that encourage people to kill. However, if you talk to responsible gun owners in the US you will not find murder very high on the agenda. Indeed, by far the most common motive is defence: a desire to have the capacity protect oneself, which in a culture with widespread gun ownership all but requires a gun. There is sometimes also a delight in the power of the weapon – but this is equally the case with cars, which are far deadlier.

The kinds of weapons we have exalted in action movies and certain videogames are not cybervirtuous, because they do not inspire good behaviour. But neither are the guns themselves solely responsible for the terrible things that are done with them. It’s not that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” or that “the sole purpose of guns is to kill people”, it is that guns, bullets, shops, lobbying groups, military institutions, media corporations, and many more elements besides contribute to every disastrous outcome that begins with firearms being both glorified and too readily available. Every responsible gun owner keeps their weaponry in locked cabinets or safes, yet nothing about the design of firearms encourages this behaviour. It is rather the mark of the responsible owner that they possess the virtue of prudence in respect of their weaponry.

It is an open question whether guns might be designed in a way that encourages such care, that is, whether a cybervirtuous firearm is even conceivable. Might this possibility be worth exploring?

A Hundred Cyborgs, #9


Why Players Love Stories

Shadows AwakeningOver at the blog for Develop: Brighton today, I discuss the weird double standard that game developers sometimes express about the importance of narrative to videogames. Here’s an extract:

What I’ve come to realise over the last fifty videogame projects I’ve worked on, and particularly as a result of my research into how and why humans enjoy games (I’m presenting my latest findings on this at Develop:Brighton next month), is that “it’s the gameplay that matters” misunderstands the relationship between games and stories. It’s a mistake that scholars in game studies repeatedly make as well – they assume that the ‘game’ is the crunchy designed systems, and the ‘story’ is this kind of wrapping paper that you dress up the mechanics in. There might be a recognition of the importance of that ‘wrapper’ in getting players interested in playing the game, but sooner or later, everyone comes down to the importance of those game systems and the lesser role of narrative.

Trouble is, that doesn’t describe how people play games, much less why we enjoy them.

You can read the entirety of Why Players Love Stories over at the Develop: Brighton blog.


Amazon

Amazon shoppingRemember that video that went viral where somebody started with an empty room and then filled it with furniture and decorations without ever leaving? What a glorious demonstration of the way our insatiable lust for convenience has successfully isolated us from each other and euthanised any kind of economy not grounded in corporate-operated, internet-enabled marketplaces.

I don’t feel good about being an Amazon cyborg, but I don't stop either. For all that I am always looking for new options for buying books, I have not been able to shake off the world’s largest ‘bookstore’. Equally worrying are the number of times I order some other kind of item via Amazon, either because I looked in the bricks-and-mortar stores around me and couldn’t find it, or because I don’t have time to make it out to the shops and convenience becomes impulse becomes purchase.

Setting aside various allegations about the work environment for employees of Amazon, and the shockingly low national taxes being paid by the internet giant, the trouble with being an Amazon cyborg is on the one hand the cyber-impulsiveness it encourages, and on the other the ignorance about what we are doing when our buying process is simply a search and a click. People are quite frequently purchasing from Amazon without any concept of whom they just purchased from... perhaps for many people this doesn’t even matter – but it’s rather difficult to see any virtue in this wholesale disregard for context.

To be fair to Amazon, the situation we are now facing is an entirely logical extension of the aggregation of retail revenue that has taken place over the last century. Chain stores in the 1920s, supermarkets in the 30s and 40s, shopping malls in the 50s and 60s, warehouse stores in the 70s and 80s, megastores and big box retailers in the 90s and 2000s, followed by the logical extreme: online marketplaces backed by a vast warehousing and distribution infrastructure. All Amazon has done is extend the trend of taking retail out of individual hands by exploiting ever-growing economies of scale and capitalising on the possibilities of the internet to take this yet one step farther.

The thing about the Amazon cyborgs’ cyber-impulsiveness is that it doesn’t even register as a debility of any significance and is all too easily dismissed by invoking the consumer’s ultimate moral values: convenience and price. The attempt to stack up any other kind of perspective against this becomes largely untenable if we have already accepted this rather strange logic that places ease of action and lowest cost above any other means of assessment. Thus we end up in this peculiar predicament where we Amazon cyborgs are sustaining the online retailer and any qualms we might have are swiftly swept away by the sheer comfortable ease of our ongoing relationship. I might pause to express some anxiety about what’s happening... but within a week, I’ll have ordered something else from Amazon.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #8


Chlorophyll

ChlorophyllIndulge me while I blur a few lines...

We don’t think of biology as technology, except when humans have tampered with it. Even if we’re not comfortable with interpreting the incredible achievements of organisms in terms of technology, we can understand the connection by analogy. The gap here, the difficulty, is that we view technology as something planned and designed, and don’t want to share this feat with other animals, even now when it’s clear that tools are something we share with other mammals, birds, fish, and more than one kind of octopus.

DNA is the original technology, or proto-technology if you prefer, a means for combining atoms of carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, sulphur, and phosphorus into amino acids and forming those into proteins, from which all organisms are founded. Now intriguingly, other atoms are used in biology but solely because of the creation of proteins that happen to fold in such a way as to bond to some specific atom or ion like a key fitting a lock. Magnesium, for instance, sits squarely in the centre of a molecular ring ‘designed’ to make use of it in chlorophyll. It’s a clever piece of molecular engineering, and one that animals would later reuse for haemoglobin, which has the same basic structure but with iron in the centre. For chlorophyll, the magnesium forms a chemical photocell capable of absorbing certain wavelengths of light from our sun and turning it into energy. All plant and indeed animal life on our planet depends upon this specific chemical that algae developed and which later gave rise to plants.

Now if we take the entities built of DNA and its five elemental building blocks as ‘organisms’, chlorophyll can be seen as a magnesium-based photocell technology, and plants can be thought of as a proto-cyborg (accepting this blurring between organism and technology for the purpose of thinking this through). That allows us to ask: what are the cybervirtues of chlorophyll?

Precisely because of their intimate relationship with chlorophyll, plants are punctual and tenacious (proto-)cyborgs that show a potentially admirable commitment to soaking up the sun. Yet they also developed diverse responses to sharing space with one another: while some plants compete to tower above and collect the most light, others settle into spaces below the canopy and content themselves with living in shade. Indeed, they become so comfortable in such places that too much sunlight would be fatal. Still, they remain resolutely committed to collecting sunlight. We can admire the cyber-tenacity of the chlorophyll cyborgs, even without thinking that there is no conscious choice involved in them behaving this way.

If this is a fanciful way of thinking about plants – as photocell cyborgs – it at least offers a way of thinking about contemporary biotechnology that isn’t just about configuring organisms for human profit. Cyborgs or not, plants have their own excellences. We ought to consider that when we decide to tamper with the nature of their being.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #7


Gender

Facebook_genderWhen Facebook began offering a bewildering array of options for users to select ‘gender’ (56 in the US, 71 in the UK), it garnered a great deal of attention. Advocates for the trans community welcomed the change, which freed them from the limitations of menu technology that forces a binary ‘male or female’ decision upon people whose relationship with these terms was nowhere near as simple as checking one of two boxes. The change also allowed millions of people in the LGBT demographic to be more accurately targeted by the marketing of companies who advertise on Facebook… like all the other gender technologies we currently use, there was both a political and an economic face to its use.

To speak of gender as a technology, as Teresa de Lauretis did in 1987, is to recognise the way that our concepts of technology are, like software in general, available to be hacked, and at the same time to acknowledge the way those gender concepts are embedded within technology. For example, cinema and television have various ways of portraying and thus normalising gender roles on screen. Beyond this, the network of things that we are all embedded within has myriad traces of gender: high heeled shoes, ‘Action Figures’ (which are thus divided from ‘dolls’), tampons, jock straps… no matter how individuals claim and re-purpose these things for their own identities, the traces of gender remain throughout consumer culture.

What we often fail to address in our dealings with gender technologies is that, as tools, they do different jobs. The notion of complementarity that many religious practices embed had radically different meanings before the struggle for economic equality supplanted them, and created what we call discrimination. At its best, the tool of gender complementarity can encourage respect for difference, create safe spaces for conversation, and distribute power in many ways that are not necessarily economic. Conversely, the notion of non-binary gender that inspired Facebook’s explosion of gender categories is a tool ideally suited to the job of recognising what has been concealed in the margins. It provides a deconstruction of ‘male’ and ‘female’ concepts, and a wider understanding of the many ways of being human. This gender technology runs into trouble, however, when it tries to supplant complementarity – when instead of offering itself as a more subtle tool for fine working, it insists it is the only permissible tool.

Pragmatically, a great many (although not all) non-binary genders require the gender tools of complementarity to validate their meanings. It does not make sense to transition from one gender to another without using both the complementarity tool and the non-binary tool. We are not doing a great job with either at the moment, and I don’t know if this is because our tools aren’t good enough, or whether we simply lack the appropriate skills to get the most out of what we have.

A Hundred Cyborgs, #6